Effective Presentations – Part 3 – Delivering Conference Presentations

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Last week I gave some advice for preparing a great conference presentation; this week I’m offering tips on how to deliver that conference presentation effectively. This is the third in a series – so if you’ve not seen any of the earlier ones, I suggest you go back now and read those two earlier posts.

Here are the 5 most common mistakes I see people making when presenting at a conference…

1. Talking Too Fast

Although this occasionally comes from being a bit nervous, the most common reason presenters talk too fast is because they have too many slides. Whatever the reason, the cures are the same – proper preparation (discussed in my last post) and lots of rehearsal. I actually rehearse my conference presentations about 20 or 30 times beforehand, enough that it becomes so familiar that I don’t even need notes to do it. That familiarity relaxes me when it comes time to do the actual presentation – which in turn slows me down. Extensive rehearsal is also the only way to actually know how long your presentation will be. I time every single rehearsal and if it’s even a minute too long, I cut slides. This is where you have to be ruthless. If you’re too attached to a slide to delete it, then save it for another day – or put it at the end – someone might ask a question that will let you use it.

2. Talking at the Screen

Some people spend more time looking at the screen than at the audience. This not only makes them hard to hear, it disconnects them from the audience. The two most common reasons for this problem are: 1) overusing the laser pointer and 2) having too much text on the slides. Again, this is most easily cured by effective preparation and rehearsal. If you’ve followed my preparation advice, then there shouldn’t be vast tracks of text on your slides to be reading in the first place, and if you’ve rehearsed sufficiently, you shouldn’t need to be reading anything. You should be making eye contact with the audience as you speak – in fact, try to look at everyone in the room at least once. You keep your audience engaged by connecting with them personally.

In terms of the laser pointer there are a number of tips that can help you. First ask yourself if you even need a laser pointer. Most people don’t use it all that effectively anyway. They just whip it around and around on the slide, never stopping on anything in particular, and all the heads in the audience spin and bob in unison, following the whirling red dot (or just looking for it). It’s a distraction you really don’t need, nor do they. If there really is something you need to point out, it’s going to be mighty hard to hold the pointer steady enough, especially if you’re a bit nervous. Instead, I suggest you use the mouse pointer – move it to the thing you need to point to and then let it go – just leave it there until you need to move it again. If that’s not an option – and you absolutely have to use a laser pointer – then point to the item in question for just a second or two and then turn the laser pointer off until you need it next.

3. Reading from Notes

This is usually what the nervous beginners do – they either bring in a little stack of cards, or a pad of notes, and they read the entire presentation. They rarely look up and they usually pause in all the wrong places, with the net result being that no one has a clue what they are trying to say and they all lose interest. The audience then starts chattering amongst themselves to fill the time, which just leads to more stress for the presenter. The cure is – you guessed it – rehearsal.

4. Reading the Title and Acknowledgement slides

When I see a presenter spend 2 to 3 minutes on their title slide I just know that I am going to be tortured mercilessly for the next 15 to 20 minutes. Really – we’ve all been looking at your title slide for 5 minutes while things are being set up and you’re being introduced – you don’t need to read it to us and give us all the gory details of your co-authors. And you especially don’t need to start by telling us your name. First of all, you’ve just been introduced. Secondly – we’ve probably just seen the note to yourself (about who you are) on the screen during setup and are still chuckling about it…

Who am I

Since we’ll all be gawking at this slide during the setup – why not put all the authors’ names and affiliations on there and let us read about them while we’re waiting. That frees up a couple of minutes in your presentation for more interesting stuff. The Session Chair will introduce both you and your presentation title, so why not move things right along by saying something like this?

“Thank-you, Bob. I’d like to start off by acknowledging my co-authors listed here…”

Then hit the button and move on to the next slide. If you’re a student, you might say just a wee bit more before leaving the title slide, for example possibly something like…

“Thank-you, Bob. I’d like to start off by acknowledging my co-authors listed here, especially my Masters project supervisor, Dr. Nobel Laureate… ”

The same sort of reasoning applies for the acknowledgements slide, which usually appears at the end. Please don’t read it to us or describe all of the excruciating details of who did what. Just put these words in a large font at the top of the last slide…

Thank-you! Questions?

Then list the people/organizations you wish to thank below that, under a smaller sub-heading called “Acknowledgements”. When you get to this last slide you simply say,

“Thanks for your attention. Are there any questions?”

Leave them to peruse the acknowledgements on their own while you are answering questions.

5. Excessively long answers to questions

Once the presentation ends, there are still mistakes to make. The most common one is to give another whole presentation-length soliloquy in response to a simple question. Most conferences allow, at most, 5 minutes for questions after each presentation. It’s nice to have time for 2 or 3 questions at least, so keep that in mind as you’re answering each one. Limit your answers to two or three sentences at the most. If you think you’re going to need a lot more time to give a proper answer, then give a brief version of the answer and suggest that you talk to the person at the next break if they would like more detail. Also, keep an eye on the Session Chair as you answer your questions – if s/he is getting antsy, you’re probably being too verbose. Also, watch the questioner – if they are looking puzzled, it doesn’t mean that you need to talk even longer – it means that you are not answering the question they asked and you should stop talking altogether.

Don’t be concerned if no one has a question. This happens for many reasons, and they’re not all bad. Often it just means that you didn’t say anything controversial. It could also mean that you explained things well or that they are so intimidated by your obvious brilliance, that they’re afraid to embarrass themselves by asking anything. It will make you feel better to think that, at least! 🙂

I hope you found this series of posts helpful. As always – comments are welcome, as are your own tips for this topic. Good luck!

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